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Megacities of the world: a glimpse of how we'll live tomorrow

By 2050, 7 out of 10 people will live in megacities, offering the benefits of concentrated living but also some of the biggest public-works challenges in human history.

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For now, though, people like Zhao are simply enjoying the allure of urban life. "I think the most attractive thing about big cities like Beijing is the invisible halo it brings to me," says Zhao. "My friends back home think I'm amazing that I can survive and even have a good life in a big city like Beijing."

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  • Graphic 2010
    (Rich Clabaugh/Staff)

  • Graphic 2025
    (Rich Clabaugh/Staff)

Tokyo: the megacity that works

Zhao's friends raise a basic question: As the world tilts inexorably urban, will the megacities of tomorrow even be livable? Experts point to cities like Lagos, Nigeria, as the kind of urban beehive that doesn't work – traffic, untold pollution, the lack of even the most basic services.

Yet other megacities have certainly found the right blend of concrete and urban cachet. Most notable is the world's largest urban conglomeration – Tokyo. Though the multitudes in Tokyo proper are shoehorned into a relatively small area, the city consistently ranks near the top in surveys of the world's most livable places. It boasts high-quality goods and services, a wealth of world-class restaurants, and an enviable choice of museums, galleries, and architectural wonders.

But its near-faultless transportation system may be the most impressive and efficient means of public mobility ever built. Many residents cite the ease with which they can explore their city as a primary reason Tokyo is a desirable place to live.

"You can be anywhere in the city within an hour, easily," says Mami Ishikawa, a university student.

Outside Shinjuku Station, the busiest train station in the world, a swarm of 3.64 million commuters per day spill out onto the streets, seemingly in unison, via countless exits and well-designed traffic lights. Innovative "cycle trees," multilevel mechanized parking lots for cyclists, make it simple to get around without a car.

Yet Tokyo's urban efficiency is due as much to social factors as it is to its transportation system and technological prowess. "Cultural aspects, such as the Japanese penchant for order, respect for social rules and norms, and reluctance to intrude on others' private realms is also very important to minimizing friction," says Julian Worrall, an expert at Waseda University.

Undeniably, Tokyo has its challenges: high costs, dense living, patience-sapping gridlock for those brave enough to drive. Mr. Worrall points to aesthetic deficiencies, too – the spread of high-rise condos, the lack of urban space devoted to something other than consumption and production.

Maybe so. But to someone like Pastor Singh, who has to line up each day in Mumbai just to get water, those might seem like petty annoyances.

• Staff writer Sara Miller Llana in Mexico City and correspondents Taylor Barnes in Mumbai; Zhang Yajun in Beijing; Justin McCurry in Tokyo; and Andrew Downie in São Paulo, Brazil, contributed to this report.

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